With judges and lawyers under attack from leaders in Malawi and Zimbabwe, the International Bar Association has called on those countries to respect the independence of the legal profession.
The International Bar Association (IBA) has spoken out against what it sees as the persecution of lawyers in Southern Africa, calling on the governments of Malawi and Zimbabwe to respect the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession.
In a statement, the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemned what it called “the continued persecution of Constitutional Court judges in Malawi by the country’s President Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party”.
It cited the government’s attempt to remove Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda ahead of this week’s presidential election. Electoral results are not yet clear, but opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera appears to have won a comfortiable victory.
As leader of the Constitutional Court, Nyirenda led the panel of judges that annulled the 2019 presidential election, in which Mutharika claimed victory, on the grounds of electoral irregularities and vote tampering, a decision which led to this week’s re-run.
Attacks by Mutharika’s government included claiming that Nyirenda had to take his remaining leave days and step down, rather than see out his remaining term until December 2021, and the president publicly criticising the judiciary as an enemy of democracy.
IBAHRI co-chair Michael Kirby said: “President Mutharika is a distinguished and experienced lawyer. Therefore, he should understand the vital importance of upholding the integrity and independence of the judiciary. His attacks on court rulings are simply unacceptable. President Mutharika must recall his country’s 1994 adoption of multi-party democracy and reflect on the successes since that time in maintaining and defending an independent judiciary.”
Kirby went on to endorse the court’s decision to annul the election, as it “demonstrably contained manifest flaws”.
His IBAHRI co-chair Anne Ramberg added: “The personal attacks against judges must be halted immediately because they damage and diminish the public’s regard for the judiciary; an institution that should be considered a pillar of a properly functioning society. It needs to be widely understood that an independent judiciary is fundamental to the rule of law, which upholds the guarantee of human rights, in democratic societies. Intimidation should not be inflicted on judges for performing their judicial duty.”
IBAHRI, has also called on the government of Zimbabwe to release several lawyers who have been arrested on what the organisation called “unfounded charges”, saying the group had been “carrying out their professional duties”.
In a letter addressed to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, signed by Kirby and Ramberg, IBAHRI called for the release of Thabani Mpofu, Tapiwa Makanza, Joshua Chirambwe, Choice Damiso, Dumisani Dube, Sylvester Hashiti and Patrick Tererai.
Mpofu, Makanza, Chirambwe and Damiso were accused of forging an affidavit while making a challenge to the appointment of Kumbirai Hodzi as prosecutor-general, while Dube, Hashiti and Tererai have been arrested over dissent.
The letter says “this spate of arrests point to a larger pattern of systemic harassment, humiliation and intimidation of lawyers, simply for carrying out their duties as legal practitioners”.
“The rule of law depends upon a strong and empowered legal profession, free from improper influence, and the IBAHRI is committed to calling to notice attacks against the rights of lawyers,” they continued.
Mnangagwa came to power in late 2017, bringing hopes of a fresh approach to attracting international investment, with building the country’s legal system and upholding rule of law at the heart of what international observers were hoping for. However, progress has been slow.
Last month, an IBA report endorsed Egypt’s recent legal reforms.